Students at the University of Cambridge are to be offered free, eight-week mindfulness training to help build resilience against stress as part of a new research project launched to coincide with the start of term. 

University life can be stressful at time for students, as they develop the skills to live and study independently

Géraldine Dufour

The study, which could see over 500 students receive mindfulness training, aims to measure its effectiveness in managing stress amongst students, particularly at exam time, and whether it helps in other factors such as sleep and wellbeing. It will also explore whether the training affects students’ use of mental health treatment and support services.

Mindfulness involves the use of meditation techniques and self-awareness. Originally developed to help patients with chronic pain cope with their condition, it is now a recognised – and clinically-proven – way of helping individuals cope with depression, anxiety and stress.

Géraldine Dufour, Head of Counselling at the University, says: “University life can be stressful at time for students, as they develop the skills to live and study independently. Developing resilience and the skills to cope with stress is key so that students can make the most of life in the collegiate university and when they leave. The university counselling service offers many opportunities for students to develop their skills through an extensive programme of workshops, groups and individual counselling. We believe mindfulness could be a powerful tool to help them, in addition to the other counselling services we offer. This research project will help us determine if mindfulness is a good use of resources.”

From October, undergraduates and postgraduates at the University of Cambridge will be invited to register for a free, eight-week mindfulness training course called Mindfulness Skills for Students, which will be led by Dr Elizabeth English, the University’s Mindfulness Practitioner. The course is a group-based training programme based on the course book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, and adapted for Cambridge students. It consists of one 90-minute session and seven 75-minute sessions. Participants are also requested to do some home practice and reading every week.

Students will be allocated at random to two groups – one to receive training immediately, the second to be deferred twelve months. All students – both those who take the course and those whose training is deferred – will record their stress levels using a smartphone app during the exam period, while activity monitors will record their physical activity and sleep patterns.

“The academic year provides a very real ‘natural experiment’,” says Dr Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry, who will carry out the research together with Professor Peter Jones. “Students receive training, practice at home, then face a ‘pressure point’ – their exams. We hope that our study will help us answer the question of whether the provision of mindfulness training, which we know to be effective in other settings, can help students throughout the year and particularly at exam time.”

The level of support available to students at Cambridge is unparalleled in most other universities. The University Counselling Service, one of the best funded in the country, includes counsellors as well as mental health advisors and supplements the support available to students from specialist staff in the colleges such as college nurses and chaplains. In the previous academic year, over 1,500 people were seen for counselling – this represents around one in 12 of the student population. Its Mindfulness Skills for Students programme is believed to be the largest such programme in any university.

Students wishing to register for the evaluation study of the Mindfulness Training Programme should visit the mindfulness website or email mindfulstudentstudy@medschl.cam.ac.uk.


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